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Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator


By: Jason M Colby(Author)

394 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations, b/w maps

Oxford University Press

Hardback | Jul 2018 | #238495 | ISBN-13: 9780190673093
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £19.99 $26/€22 approx

About this book

Orcas are the most profitable and controversial display animal in history, and since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013, millions around the world have focused on their plight. Yet no historical account has explored how we came to care about killer whales in the first place.

In Orca, Jason Colby tells the exhilarating and often heartbreaking story of how people came to love the ocean's greatest predator. Historically reviled as dangerous pests, killer whales were dying by the hundreds, even thousands, by the 1950s – the victims of whalers, fishermen, and even the US military. In the Pacific Northwest, fishermen shot them, scientists harpooned them, and the Canadian government mounted a machine gun to eliminate them. But that all changed in 1965, when a Seattle entrepreneur named Ted Griffin became the first person to swim and perform with a captive killer whale. The show was a hit, and he began capturing and selling others, including Sea World's first "Shamu".

Over the following decade, live display transformed popular and scientific views of Orcinus orca. The public embraced killer whales as charismatic and friendly while scientists enjoyed their first access to live orcas. In the Pacific Northwest, these captive encounters reshaped regional values and helped drive environmental activism, including Greenpeace's anti-whaling campaigns. Yet even as Northwesterners taught the world to love whales, they came to oppose their captivity. So when Sea World attempted to catch its own killer whales, Northwesterners would fight for the freedom of a marine predator that had become a regional icon.

With access to previously unavailable documents and interviews, Colby offers the definitive history of how the feared and despised "killer" became the beloved "orca" and what that means for our relationship with the ocean and its creatures.

"[Colby] weaves into the narrative first-hand interviews with the sagas main players. The result is immersive and dramatic."
– Sascha Hooker, Nature

"Immersive and dramatic [...] Colby demonstrates the speed at which societal attitudes can also shift the baseline of our expectations. In this age of extinction, with ongoing changes in ocean chemistry and physics, it is the potential for a sea change in public attitude that presents hope."

"This is an affecting book, personal and political all at once, and written by a scholar who has worked hard to recover and relay painful tales of the wild orcas that encountered humans and the humans that did the encountering. Nearly all those meetings began in panic and pain, most of it the whales', though some of it that of the men who came to believe they were doing the wrong thing wresting these breathtaking animals from their world, to deliver them to our own – which has been changed by the resulting episodes of captivity and captivation."
– D. Graham Burnett, author of The Sounding of the Whale

"This fascinating history reveals what happens when humans became captivated by captive orcas. Colby poignantly locates the very origins of conservation in the tense, tender, and tragic relationships between humans and cetaceans. This finely textured social history of the Pacific Northwest opens up the story of how 'killer whales' – once cast as deadly pests – became popular attractions and emotional, intelligent 'orcas'."
– Daniel Bender, author of The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo

"With Orca, Jason Colby takes readers on a riveting journey. In a matter of decades, the Pacific Northwest's killer whales traveled from despised vermin to regional sweethearts. Their emotional passage revealed the true wildcard of wildlife management: navigating the swirling opinions of human populations. A timely book, Orca brings history to bear on a fraught relationship between two apex predators. Colby traces the rise in human affection for the whales but also the emergence of a cruel realization as audiences cheered captives' performances in aquariums across the globe. Love and fandom could kill and maim as efficiently as fear and contempt. In the end, it's unclear whether orcas benefited from the connection they forged with people."
– Jon Coleman, author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America

"Killer whales, or orcas – the apex marine predators – were once widely feared as dangerous vermin and were shot on sight. Yet over the past fifty years, a sea change in attitudes towards this remarkable animal took place, and today the species is a revered and cherished global icon of the wild marine environment. In this compelling book, Jason Colby chronicles this transition in our relationship with the killer whale and tells an enthralling story complete with drama and excitement. It is sure to be an important addition to the libraries of natural historians and whale enthusiasts alike."
– John Ford, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

"Colby shines a light on how little we understand of these magnificent creatures. His book gives a glimpse into a mysterious yet strangely familiar world, brought to life in a story that's tragic, heartbreaking, and finally hopeful."
Foreword Reviews, Starred Review

"A revealing look at how the human view of orcas has changed [...] Colby persuasively contends that, despite legitimate concerns popularized by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, about the effects of captivity on orcas, the animals avoided extinction because their presence in accessible public venues enabled people to relate to them [...] Colby has produced an originally argued and accessibly jargon-free consideration of a hot-button animal conservation issue."
Publishers Weekly

"Killer whales, also known as orcas, are idolized, loved, and even revered. Such sentiments, however, have not always been held toward this species, as historian Jason Colby reveals in his new book, Orca [...] Colby does an excellent job of framing these events within the larger environmental movement of the time, as well as placing them within the context of the nationalism that was spreading on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border at the time."
– Robin W. Baird, Science



1. "The Most Terrible Jaws Afloat"
2. The Old Northwest
3. Griffin's Quest
4. Murray Newman and Moby Doll
5. Namu's Journey
6. A Boy and His Whale
7. Fishing for Orcas
8. Skana and the Hippie
9. The Scores at Pender Harbor
10. Supply and Demand
11. The White Whale
12. Penn Cove Roundup
13. Whaling in the New Northwest
14. Big Government and Big Business
15. The Legend of Mike Bigg
16. 17. New Frontiers
18. Haida's Song
19. The Legacy of Capture


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Jason Colby is a scholar of environmental and international history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Born in Victoria and raised in the Seattle area, he has spent most of his life in the Salish Sea. In his high school and undergraduate years, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and on fish farms in Puget Sound. His family has close ties to the story of orcas and the Pacific Northwest.

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